How Those in Recovery Are Staying Connected During COVID-19

I asked three people in recovery what they are doing to stay sober—and sane.

Posted Jul 14, 2020

Nina Christie
Source: Nina Christie

This post was written by Nina Christie. Nina Christie is a doctoral student at USC pursuing her Ph.D. in psychology on social isolation and substance abuse. Her prior work focuses on harm-reduction programs such as needle exchanges, the role of the endogenous opioid system in the experience of social isolation, and the impact of social networks on adolescent drug use.

I was at a typical New Years Eve party filled with people listening to upbeat music, wearing silly glasses, and congregating around the food. But one thing was missing from the party: there was no alcohol. It was hosted by my friend who is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The concept of a sober NYE party may seem strange for “normies,” (an AA term for social drinkers­) but those in recovery celebrate the same events that we all celebrate, and they too do it surrounded by loved ones.

As a “normie,” this was my first time (post-high school) ringing in the New Year completely sober. It felt strange; I had even brought a bottle of champagne—that I left in the car—in case there was social drinking among those of us not in AA. Spoiler: there wasn’t. But something happened that night. After I left, I felt a true sense of camaraderie and belongingness, something I don’t usually feel when leaving a NYE party. Being sober enhanced my sense of connection. As I’ve been reflecting on the whirlwind that has been 2020 and how people have been impacted, I think about how devastating the loss of community has been for people in sobriety. Physical distancing is a huge stressor for anyone to overcome, but especially for people in recovery. (I use the term physical, rather than social distancing.)

To those in recovery, you are probably nodding your head yes; to those who are not, this is your chance to understand how physical distancing is affecting those who are in recovery. People in recovery rely on connections and community support to maintain their sobriety, like my friends at the NYE party. I sat down (virtually) with several people in recovery to ask them how physical distancing has affected them and what they are doing to cope. I wanted to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the recovery community, and to raise their voices for both people in recovery to see that they are not alone, and for society to better understand the challenges faced by those in recovery. We do not have to be alone. As I talked with each of them, something psychologists have long-known to be true stood out—connection with others is essential to well-being. 

The names used below are aliases (it is an anonymous community, after all!).  

Wade is a case manager at a drug and alcohol treatment center with six years of sobriety. He delved into feelings of connection, and how the general energy among those in rehab has changed to be dominated by feelings of anxiety and worry. He talks about how he found humor to be a good coping tool for those in early recovery:

“I feel a lack of connection by not being physically around people. I have only been attending online meetings with friends from my homegroup, which has eliminated the spontaneity of in-person meetings. Things like reaching out to somebody I see struggling, or buying somebody breakfast after the meeting. The other day, my girlfriend and I walked to pick up takeout for dinner. I like to eat a lot, so I ordered some extra food. As we walked home, I ended up giving some food to a homeless man, and I guess you can say that kind of filled that void for that moment in time [...] At work, I’ve been forced to get creative. I joke with clients and tell them that when they are old and have more time sober, they can tell the newcomer who is complaining about recovery, ‘When I was your age, I got sober in a go**amn pandemic! We couldn't even leave the house!” 

Nicolas—a labor and delivery nurse with five years of sobriety—talked about the importance of relationships of all kinds; from family and friends, sponsors and sponsees, and his girlfriend. Nicolas talks about one of the tangible benefits of having a close support network: accountability.

“It is so important to keep on fostering relationships even when they are not in their ideal form for all people living in social distancing areas, regardless of whether or not they are in recovery or an AA-type community […] I find myself losing track of the days and not calling my sponsor or my sponsee on a daily basis because suddenly it’s 6 p.m. and I tell myself, 'Oh, they're probably eating dinner,’ or ‘I don't have anything new to share, I'll just call tomorrow.' To combat that, I have made myself accountable to someone other than myself—my girlfriend. We made rules for the quarantine: how often we can order food, what time we get up, how many meetings I have to make it to every week, and contacting my sponsee every day to make sure that I am of service to others. I have the combination of an external source of tracking and an internal method of monitoring the ways that I cope in quarantine.” 

Cici, a college student living in an on-campus sober living community (yes, those exist!), just reached the six-month mark in her sobriety since physical distancing measures went into effect. She discusses her community with a tone of gratitude:

“I’m lucky to be here with them, it would be really hard for me otherwise. I’m in contact with more and more people from the meetings we go to as a group—online now of course. Personally, meeting newcomers and seeing the same people in the rooms week after week really helps me. I feel like it is hard because the chips [tokens given in the AA and NA communities to celebrate milestones in recovery, like 30-day or 60-day chips where the community commends a person for their achievement] are a really nice physical token that people aren’t able to get right now.”

After reflecting on their own experiences, each of them offered some advice for those who are new to recovery, or for anyone who is feeling lonely: 

“I 100% recommend that you go to zoom meetings! People give phone numbers in the chat messages—try calling just to have contact with someone from AA meetings. Reaching out to people in those meetings can be difficult when you’re new, and you’re awkwardly muted while someone else is speaking, but people are very responsive if you text into the chat. You can say, ‘Hi my name is so-and-so and I have this many days, is anyone willing to talk with me?’" –Cici

“One piece of advice I have for anybody, in recovery or not: if somebody crosses your mind, whether it is a friend from your past or a family member that you haven't talked to for a long time, just contact them. Thinking of others has always helped me to ‘get out of self.’” –Wade

“If you're in recovery, and you're self-isolating, then be sure to find ways to get out of that isolation. Talk to those that you love, talk to those you trust, and continue to foster your interests. Remember that there's life worth living, and that you can love yourself.” –Nicolas

I received a strong and clear message from every person I talked to: Stay connected with family and friends to improve your quality of life. If you were thinking of someone as you read this, perhaps a person you know in recovery, or an old friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with, call them. Reach out in any way that you can—they might need you more than you know. If you are in recovery, or are working on becoming a stronger ally for those who are, I have included links below to online meeting rooms and other information. I am happy to correspond with any readers who want to chat!